The more control over life one believes he has the happier he is; however, the attempt to inappropriately control events brings unhappiness. The use of control is paradoxical: we believe taking control will bring us security and happiness, yet its overuse causes unhappiness, anxiety, and malaise. In the treatment of clients with addiction problems, depression, marital issues, anxiety, and anger issues a common thread is control.
Depressive clients hold onto their pessimistic attitudes and beliefs. In therapy it is often discovered they hold these attitudes as a security blanket against disappointment. If a depressed person keeps a pessimistic attitude, she is less likely to be disappointed. This is an attempt to control the inevitable. Often, this pessimistic attitude fails to prevent the disappointment. Disappointment is part of life. Many people experience an inordinate amount of negative emotions and hurt; perhaps they have been hypersensitive to negative experiences. Their depression has as much to do with an attempt to prevent future hurt as it does with scarring from the past. This is an inappropriate attempt to control the inevitable.
Wanting control leads to anger; this emotional response increases when control is impeded. Here's an example of how anger relates to control: Driving and getting stuck in traffic. This scenario is a common frustration. The situation is out of personal control. Switching lanes, trying to cut in front of others, or leaving the highway and trying an alternate route, are exercises in control. However, this can lead to further frustration when efforts are ineffectual and control is again thwarted. The inability to control the situation leads to the feeling of frustration and anger.
Control and Parenting
For another example, think of parents and children: When a child is told to do something and he does not, or he talks back, or he ignores the direction, it is not uncommon for the parent to become angry. It is clear that this is related to control: the desire to control the child's behavior. It is also reasonable to understand how the situation can escalate.
All anger does not come from issues of control. Anger is often the result of fear or hurt. Hurt feelings that turn to anger are often a result of someone not behaving the way we would want. Although this isn't directly control, it is related. We wouldn't be angry if the offending individual had behaved the way we deemed appropriate, (or the way we would have had them behave had we been in control).
Control and Marriage
There are many contributors to marital strife, and difficulty with actual or perceived loss of control is sometimes the problem. Marital arguments may stem from lack of consistency with each other's expectations. This relates to control, or the lack thereof. One partner wants something handled one way. The other disagrees, either outwardly, or by not altering her behavior. Arguments escalate or avoidance occurs. This is the result of wanting to have your way in the situation and not getting it.
Control and Addiction
Addiction is characterized by the loss of control. This loss of control is in regard to a substance or behavior that, in the beginning, brings relief or pleasure. Substance use may start as an attempt to control feelings. Many people attempt to manage or control feelings, but they end up addicted to drugs or alcohol, for example. The substance abuser wants to alter her state. For example, after a rough day at work she wants to relax. The substance is used to alter her mood; hence taking control of a mood that was being controlled by external events (or whatever contributed to the bad day). This can be applied to any negative mood state. Eventually, the person comes to rely on the substance; then the substance dictates the mood. This is true of other situations as well, and a cycle begins. Part of the core of addiction is a desire to control one's state through inappropriate means.
Control and Anxiety
Anxiety provides another negative state caused by an inappropriate desire to control. People worry about the future, whether distant or near. An example: Worrying about your child being out with friends. This seems like a reasonable situation to worry about. After all, you do not know what your child may be doing, or you may be concerned with his decision-making skills (rightly so, teens often do make poor decisions). Behavioral psychology purports that every behavior or action has a reward. In the case of worrying, the reward is to foresee a problem and take action. Unfortunately worrying continues when no action is possible. Worry then becomes an attempt to control, or a wish to control, what is uncontrollable. Here's a worthy pursuit: When worry serves the purpose of aiding preparation. Worrying is ineffectual beyond a certain point.
Control and Dating
When two people meet, they wonder: What does she think of me? Will it work out? Is this someone I see myself with in the future? What about the obstacles, can I overcome them? Is this my soul mate? These questions are an attempt to know the unknowable and thereby control the outcome. Rather than relaxing and letting things unfold, which leaves one vulnerable, we try to figure things out. This is a futile attempt to know the future and gain control.
If the desire to control is a central issue in unhappiness, then accepting a lack of control is the solution. In addiction treatment, people entering recovery are told of the virtues of acceptance, "letting go" and to "live and let live." This helps the substance-dependent individual to practice letting go of the need to control, by allowing things to happen, and not fretting about the future.
Control and Faith
The spiritual solution brings in the discussion of the role of faith in happiness. According to studies about happiness, people who consider themselves religious or spiritual suffer less drug abuse, suicide, and an overall higher rating of well-being. People who have faith are found to be happier; they think that things happen for a reason, that things will work out as they are supposed to, that a higher power is acting on their behalf. If you believe things will work out, there is less need to worry or hold onto a pessimistic view to protect you. If you believe things are as they are supposed to be, and that there is meaning in seemingly negative events, you will be happier. Faith cannot be minimized.
Faith does not necessarily require a belief in God. Faith can simply be the belief that you will benefit from even negative experiences. This benefit may be personal growth, a life lesson, or a nudge in the right direction by your unconscious. Even the most vehement atheist can accept that the unconscious is a power that influences behavior. If the atheist can believe his unconscious is helping, then the faith necessary for happiness can be found.
The power of letting go of control is evident through the recent movement in psychology to incorporate Eastern thought and belief. From Linehan's dialectical behavioral therapy, to the myriad of books on mindfulness, Eastern thought has been effectively adopted and proven effective by the psychological profession. All of this writing about the use of Eastern thought for improving mental health seems indicative of its benefit.
Eastern thought does not discuss faith as Western religion does; letting go of control is incorporated into Eastern thought. A main theme is accepting things as they are and focusing on the present moment. There is a sense of humility, that there are greater powers at work in the natural flow of the universe; things will unfold in a natural order.
The second noble truth of Buddhism states desire is the root of all suffering. It means when one wants things to be different than they are, when one attaches themselves to good feelings and attempts to avoid negative feelings, when one attempts to control life to exclude everything they do not like, then suffering occurs. The way to happiness is through non-attachment, letting go of expectations, being in the present, not making judgments, and simply accepting life as it presents itself. This is a tall order. Striving toward letting go by simply reminding yourself occasionally that the present is what it is, that everything doesn't have to conform to your desires, to live and let live, will contribute to more happiness.
Copyright William Berry, 2011